Stephen Tropiano declares himself a Saturday Night Live loyalist early in the introduction to his Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About Television’s Longest Running Comedy. The book, he explains, is written from the point of view of a “critical fan,” someone willing to sit through all the bad sketches and lame premises, and to ignore the conventional wisdom when it’s down on the show. He’d have to be, to sit through more than 38 seasons of television, what he estimates as “1,117.5 hours of original programming,” to put together this guide, which runs from the first season through May 2013. (For the initiated, it starts with feeding your fingertips to the wolverines and ends with the marriage of Stefon.)
It’s not that Tropiano is all that pie-eyed and pandering about SNL’s failings. Even he can’t whitewash over the original cast’s departure, which he deals with in a chapter called “Season 6 – The Worst Season (So Far).” He calls out some clunkers and voices his opinion, but he doesn’t delve too deeply into criticism.
The first 307 pages cover the history of the show, including a complete rundown of the players, highlights from every season and major themes like political controversies. The Appendix contains a 121-page episode guide: air date, episode number, musical guest and “programming notes.” It’s not an exhaustive list of every sketch, but compiling that might have killed Tropiano (see “Season 6”). It’s also fully indexed, so anyone trying to remember a particular host or musical guest will find it useful.
There is a plethora of good SNL-related books available, and Tropiano references many of them, most often Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s excellent and comprehensive Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live and Michael Cader’s Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years. He recommends all three in his introduction, and those seeking more on SNL‘s backstage drama would do better with those than FAQ.
But Tropiano didn’t limit his research to three sources. He cites plenty of other books, as well as newspaper and magazine articles, and provides a broad, detailed survey of the more interesting bits. It may not contain all the lurid details about, say, Chevy Chase leaving the show or the Norm Macdonald/Don Ohlmeyer dust-up, but they are addressed in the history of the show. And there are some great tidbits: for one, he confirms my personal suspicion that writer John Mulaney would throw in a few extra details about the clubs Stefon described on the air, which is why Bill Hader usually had a hard time keeping a straight face during “Weekend Update.”
This is more than a simple FAQ, due in part to the amount of material it seeks to include. It’s a handy reference and a good introduction for those looking to frame Saturday Night Live, if not necessarily all of the personal dealings of the people behind it, in a wider context.